When Should I Follow My Heart?
A really sharp podcast listener named Rachel writes us today. And she seems familiar with Christian Hedonism. “Hello, Pastor John! The world tells us we can only be real if we obey our native desires. That’s obviously wrong because our natural desires are for sin and for what will only destroy our joy in the end. But in response, I hear a lot of people in the church simply offering prohibitions, various forms of ‘don’t trust your desires’ or ‘don’t follow your heart.’
“And yet, if I understand Christian Hedonism correctly, the Bible calls all people everywhere to follow their hearts toward the greatest and most lasting joy in the universe. That seems to be how you define faith, in fact: finding Jesus more satisfying than anything else. So, it would be impossible for us to genuinely believe if we acted toward Christ in a way contrary to our hearts and our desires. So, wouldn’t the Christian Hedonist say something like ‘do trust your desires’ and ‘do trust your heart,’ when your heart and desires are calibrated to Christ? At what point do we trust our hearts and follow our desires? The blanket prohibitions seem inaccurate to me.”
Right, yes, they are inaccurate, unless they’re just calculated rhetorical devices to get your attention, which sometimes they are. Rachel really seems to know her way around in Christian Hedonism; I’m impressed.
“What you glorify most is what you want most.”
The two fundamental statements of Christian Hedonism are (1) God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, and therefore, (2) let’s all pursue our largest and longest satisfaction in God — the largest being full (really full) and the longest being forever. And, of course, we know where that comes from: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
What You Want Most
One of the implications of these two statements is that perpetual pursuit of God that does not come from joy in God will not honor God. You might pursue God for all kinds of reasons that don’t glorify God. You might pursue him for money, you might pursue him for marriage, you might pursue him for job success. If God is just a divine butler to bring me what I really want besides God, then pursuing him gets him little glory.
What you glorify most is what you want most — not what you use to get what you want most. You don’t make God look majestic by making him the means of something else that you want more. And Rachel is right that I think an essential part of saving faith is to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. And so, I think she’s right to say that we can’t genuinely believe (and I would add, can’t genuinely worship either), if the pursuit of God is always contrary to our heart. Contrary to our heart means that our heart wants something else more, and we simply feel coerced into pursuing God lest something bad happen to us, or as a means to something good that we want more than God.
So yes, yes, yes, it is essential — let’s just call it — to be born again, and that from the inside out we be given new preferences, new inclinations, new desires, especially a supreme desire for God. And when that essential thing happens, then we may say, perhaps without misunderstanding, that we must follow our desires. In other words, when we have been made new enough to have our strongest desires be for God, then we must follow them. Otherwise, we will not only be inauthentic, but God will not be glorified.
Recalibrate to Christ
Now, what’s missing from most contemporary declarations to follow our desires so that we will be authentic or not to follow our desires because we will be sinful is the serious consideration that our desires must be deeply and profoundly renovated.
This is offensive to unbelievers, and it’s scary to some believers who think that they should have the final say in controlling their own behavior. It’s offensive to unbelievers because it says that they are deeply flawed — deeply flawed human beings — and need to have their most fundamental desires changed by God so that God is at the center of their wants and preferences and values. And it’s scary to some believers to say that our desires must be profoundly renovated by God because that renovation is not in our control, and some people have a theology that says we have to be in control, or else we’re not responsible. That’s not true. God knows how to renovate and govern our hearts without taking away human responsibility.
“God knows how to renovate and govern our hearts without taking away human responsibility.”
Now, Rachel was getting at this when she said that we should only pursue our desires if “our heart and desires are calibrated to Christ.” I like that phrase. I used the word renovation; she used the word “calibrated to Christ.” That’s a huge if though: if our heart and desires are calibrated to Christ. The greatest spiritual task of the Christian life (and I think she knows this) is precisely that recalibration of our fallen desires — our disordered desires, our misdirected desires — into godly, orderly, properly directed desires.
This is where the great battle is fought in the Christian life. Of course, indeed, we are taught to use self-control to abstain from external actions that are sinful — but that’s not the main battle of the Christian life. The main battle is to see our hearts renovated, recalibrated, so that we don’t want to do those sinful external behaviors, and don’t just need willpower not to do them, but the root has been severed and we have different desires. In other words, the goal of change — of sanctification, of the Christian life — is to be so changed that we can and ought to follow our desires.
No Thousand-Year Regret
Here’s another way to say it: authentic living is freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul says in Galatians 5:1. But what is true freedom? Let’s think about this for just a minute. When are you free, for example, to enjoy skydiving? Now, one right answer is this: well, when you have access to a plane and to some equipment that you need. The freedom of access — right. Here’s another right answer: You have to have the ability to do it. You’ve got to have some training; you’ve got to know what you’re doing. So, the freedom of ability — right. Here’s another right answer: You’ve got to have a desire to skydive. You can’t enjoy skydiving if you don’t want to skydive. The enjoyment means fulfilling your desire; so, there is the freedom of desire.
Now, is that all? Access, ability, desire — is that what constitutes freedom? No, that’s not all. There’s one more aspect of freedom that hasn’t been mentioned, if you’re going to freely enjoy skydiving. What if you have access and ability and desire, and you leap out of the plane, enjoying the hundred-mile-an-hour wind in your goggled face, until you realize there’s no ripcord, and in thirty seconds you’ll be dead? That first enjoyment of the wind in your face was not authentic freedom; it was a delusion. There was a missing dimension to this freedom. We had freedom from lack of access, freedom from lack of ability, freedom from lack of desire, but we did not have freedom from regret.
So, my definition of true freedom — to enjoy something — is that we need access and ability and desire, and the certainty we will not regret this in a thousand years. All of which is to say, we may pursue our desires, and we may trust our heart, when our heart and desires are so renovated, so calibrated to Christ, that we have no passions for the path that leads to regret.